Tuesday 03 Aug 2021

Rest in power Fr Stan: Implications for justice struggles in Goa

RANJAN SOLOMON | JULY 11, 2021, 12:02 AM IST

Regardless of what the post mortem said about the causes of Fr Stan Swamy’s death, the human rights community, all right thinking people and the civilized world knows that it was the poison of the UAPA which really killed him.

Fr Stan was falsely implicated in the cases that the NIA claimed to have uncovered. Until his last day, there was not a proper hearing on his case. He died a victim of ‘unreason’ – the product of a system which protects the oppressive rich and privileged whose interests alone the government cares about. 

Fr Stan, on the other hand, stood steadfastly with the poor tribals, Dalits, and the marginalized. He sought justice with them by organizing them to resist the government machinery that wanted to disposes them and release their lands to the industrial classes.

Fr Stan believed that these lands belonged to the ‘commons’. The government had no authority to buy or sell these lands to anybody – even the richest entities among the industrialists. Fr Stan mobilized the people and created a powerful peoples movement who risked their lives so that they could protect their lands, the precious resources of bauxite and iron ore that lies beneath their ground. This amounts to several billion dollars at a modest estimate. Tribal leaders and environmentalists have argued: ‘These resources belong to nature and the people, who live there not to exploit, but to sustain and be responsible stewards of. If the mining industry were to be established over the lands inhabited by the people in Chhattisgarh area, the forests would be emptied, trees would be indiscriminately felled, the birds and animals would lose their habitat, the people who sustained the forests and offered stewardship of nature, would be displaced.

Fr Stan, who spent more than three-quarters of his life in Chhattisgarh, was acutely committed to the principle that land belonged to the tiller and not to capitalists from far away states who viewed land as a mere instrument to profiteer from. Consequently, he created alliances of tribals, Dalits, and the poor to empower and collectivize their efforts to live in dignity and protect their environs.

Fr Stan was arrested under the UAPA under the pretext of fictitious lies, lodged in Taloja Jail amidst a raging Covid in pathetic conditions, along with several other co-morbidities. He was gravely ill. Despite pleas for bail due to his deteriorating health, the judiciary showed their ugly side by disallowing relief to him. They were adamant and rejected it. They even took one whole month to grant him permission to use a sipper so he could have his water being a victim of Parkinson’s disease. A simple decision which could have been taken by a jail guard went to High Court. How much lower can the judiciary stoop! He bore these ordeals with stoic composure.

The NCHRO, Goa Unit in partnership with the Council for Social Justice and Peace, and Goan Jesuits, rallied civil society, social thinkers and opinion makers, faith communities, and human rights defenders, at a public rally in Margao to bid goodbye to Fr Stan earlier this week. In the main, the frequent message of all speakers was the same – A just society must allow freedom of expression so that democracy can flourish. Democracy pre-supposes a pluralistic society, one wherein different views are in dialogue and a consensus-based political climate prevails.

Democracy fails and collapses when the most powerful social groups form themselves into lobbies to get their selfish goals to prevail against the interests of the ‘commons’. The Kantian principle ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ must remain the guiding principle. And within this philosophical notion, the minorities must be expressly protected with favoured status until equity is achieved.

Although the situation in Goa may seem less oppressive, the facts point otherwise. Caste and class are powerful aspects of our social formation with the upper castes and classes calling the shots. In the recent case of the ‘three unnatural deaths’, we saw how the police seemed to take sides with the complainant -- an affluent business man. It resulted in police atrocities that led to the unnatural deaths. An untidy investigation followed and the file now travels from one police unit to the other.

In Goa’s iniquitous tourism sector, one reads of how large numbers of vulnerable women from the unprivileged lower caste and ethnic backgrounds are trafficked to make tourism in Goa more exotic for the visitor. In Goa’s informal sector, tens and thousands of migrants work under slave-like conditions to eke out an earning only to be eliminated from jobs at the drop of a hat when disasters like Covid strike. The police abuse these workers when they are found sleeping on the pavement or in parks -- their humanness discarded. They are our source of wealth because they make productivity possible. Those who employ them on the mistaken pretext that a favour is done to them when they are employed have got it wrong.

We saw how protesters rallied against the plan to replace Tiracol – one, among the most beautiful coastal spaces anywhere, to protect their rich bio-diversity. The government turned a blind eye when muscle-men/boxers beat up local people. That struggle is on. More recently, hundreds of villagers had gathered in the Melaulim area forming a human chain in order to prevent land survey officers from entering the location and carrying out the demarcation for an IIT. Villagers at the protest alleged that a Police Officer stamped upon the chest of an elderly woman during the clash, following which a huge crowd gathered outside the police station demanding action against the officer. The police was the violator of human rights but they filed FIRs against 21 persons on charges of attempt to murder, unlawful assembly and criminal conspiracy among others. The police have no action initiated against the officer to date. In this case too, the government was after some of the most precious lands belonging to the tribals.

This was a case of a ‘people’s victory’ and a government surrender. People in Goa are also fighting to protect their forests from the invasion of Railway authorities to double track their areas and leave behind havoc of environmental prosperity. To destroy nature means nothing to the transporters of coal along those rail tracks.

The lesson for Goa from the struggle of Fr Stan is to stay in the struggle using peaceful means by using powerful mobilization of the masses. When we asserted ‘Fr Stan Rest In Power’, it was a reminder that only alert & agile civil communities and human rights defenders can stop a government gone awry in its tracks. The time for that is now.

(Ranjan Solomon is a social activist, human rights defender and a social researcher)

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